Zydeco and Other Louisiana Curiosities
Cajun land. A stop to Opelousas (pronounced OPP a luses) where the capital of the Cajun Prairie lies and the self-proclaimed World of Zydeco resides. Huh? Sounds like another language? It very well is, for the word Cajun itself has an interesting etymology.
In 19th century France, people of French noble ancestry were called “les Acadiens.” That morphed into the popular American version, Cajun. The date the first European settlers reached Lafayette, Louisiana, is not certain, but trappers and traders were said to have arrived around 1766. There were native Indians there in the 1700s: the Opelousas, Alabamons and Choctaws were united in battle and defeated the powerful and feared Atakapa tribe.
Le Grand Dérangement
Since Cajun is descended from French-speaking Acadians, their history begins with Le Grand Dérangement. After the French and Indian War, the British threw out thousands of French Catholic settlers in eastern Canada and along northern Maine—known then as Acadia. Many of them took a long hard trek down the Mississippi River and settled alongside enslaved Africans, freed slaves from the Caribbean and the native Indians, the Coushatta.
Calling these settlers Cajun was, at one time, impolite, but another derogatory term also took over, “coon ass.” Today, under the Civil Rights Act, Cajuns are a federally recognized group and have a right to be protected from objectionable heritage references such as coon ass.
Louisiana in general and especially New Orleans has had a difficult dance with death. Even when the first colony was created, it wrestled a hurricane and many lost their lives. To begin the process of disposal, the people looked to the highest level to bury their dead—the topography so low—that helped to make their choice for a site. Natural levees were built up from the Mississippi depositing its soil along the banks.
Unfortunately, the first flood moved the dead out of their now watery graves and the carcasses floated through the streets. Severe overcrowding, plagues, and bad weather sent the death toll higher and the cemeteries near to busting. They eventually started building mausoleums and the above ground fixtures to house the dead became more and more elaborate. They are now tourist attractions.
Trucks are clustered together and around the building at the back, huge pots for some “bawling” which is a term for boiling crawfish, also referred to as “mudbugs.” Crawfish look like little lobsters and have pinchers that can draw blood. After a good boil, they are heavily seasoned and packaged. To eat one, you must hold it upside-down, put the body in one hand and the tail joint in another, push in slightly and pull to remove the tail. Throw away the body! The tail is peeled and eaten like a shrimp. The meat is tender. Some especially hearty folks talk about “sucking the head.”
The season for crawfish starts around Super Bowl weekend and continues into early May when the flooded fields get too warm for crawfish spawning. Typically, meals with complete fixings include crawfish, corn and potatoes for about $3.99 a pound. And speaking of pound, people do pound them back!
Chicken chasing is part of local Mardi Gras activities in places outside New Orleans. Sometimes, the chasers start at around 7 a.m. and can cover about 20 miles on their quest. They might just snag two live flapping chickens.
In addition, every small town in Cajun Prairie has a Courir de Mardi Gras or a Mardi Gras Fat Tuesday “run.” A group of revelers go on horseback (and foot) parading from house to house begging owners for the ingredients for gumbo. The Captain requests permission to come onto the property and they sing and dance for the owner until the fixings are offered. This could be rice, sausage, flour, sage… Sometimes the landowner will throw a chicken in the air and the group competes for the honor of catching it. It’s a party for everyone. The revelers' costumes are extreme. Masks and long, cone-shaped pointed hats (capuchons in French) in myriad colors and crazy patterns adorn their heads. The outfits match with garish ruffles, fringe and embellishments. The riders typically stand on their horses!
Zydeco dancing is a way to pass a good time. The word Zydeco comes from an unlikely place, originally les haricots sont pas sales, which means, “The snap beans are not salty.” Creoles often used salted meat to season the food, when they had the money.
This is authentic Creole—those people who were born in the colonies—and their music uses violins, guitar, bass guitar, drums, an accordion player (called a squeeze box with buttons) and anything that can be scratched on the frottoir—a kind of washboard item worn like a vest, typically spoons or bottle tops grate across it. The accordion usually starts each song and the singing is in a high range with a crying/singing story in Creole French.
The recent form of music that originated in the early twentieth century was called “LaLa” music. The beat is fast and infectious and the people who dance to it are moving nowhere. The couples don’t often travel the floor but stay in one small area. There is no way participants cannot smile. This is happy music for all ages.